By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
ST. PETERSBURG -- Standing on a narrow platform 40 feet above the ground, you have but one option, and that is to conquer fear.
It doesn't matter if you are a Fortune 500 CEO or a sixth-grader from the local middle school, the path to growth is through personal challenge.
That is why high ropes courses and climbing walls are gaining popularity from Maine to California.
"We did a marketing study when we were designing the new Y and discovered that that was what people wanted," said Doug Linder, executive director of the St. Petersburg YMCA. "It is incredible for kids' self-esteem and that is what we are all about, building character."
The modern challenge course is based in part on the work of George Herbert, who developed training programs for the French military, and Kurt Hahn, who founded the Outward Bound program in the United Kingdom.
Project Adventure, which has several offices in the United States, has designed and built more than 3,000 challenge courses in a variety of countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Italy and South Africa.
The challenge courses became popular in the United States as a way of bringing the adventure of wilderness climbing to an urban environment. Project Adventure's courses include a variety of rope/belay type devices such as the "vertical playpen," "seagull swing" and "wilder woosey."
Nick Hall operates an adventure course at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa. The "Executive Challenge Course" stresses team building and helps professionals develop the skills necessary to compete in today's rapidly changing economy.
"The only way you are ever going to learn to recover from stress is to experience it," said Hall, who studies the relationship between the mind and the immune system. "You need to do something that will push you outside your normal comfort zone -- been there, done that, now I can handle anything."
Hall, a psycho-neuro immunologist, calls this phenomenon "cross stressing." By seeking out and conquering stress in a controlled environment, the body becomes stronger and better able to cope with unexpected stress.
"It is like a child learning to speak a foreign language," he said. "They develop a learning set for languages, and after that first one, it becomes easy to acquire additional ones."
Team Builders, which runs a ropes course at the Safety Harbor Spa, incorporates other outdoor activities, including sea kayaking and mountain biking, with its corporate challenge curriculum.
"As is the case in business, it is about taking risks," said Colette Peterson of Team Builders. "It forces people to think outside the box."
Mike Swann, of Project Adventure's Atlanta office, said adventure/challenge courses have become increasingly popular with local school systems.
"Kids are challenged in a way that they have to be themselves," he said. "When they are stuck up high and about to jump off a pole, they are who they are.
"It levels the playing field. It doesn't matter if you are a jock or somebody who was never athletically inclined. Up there, everybody is the same."
Swann said studies have shown that the 15,000 ropes courses operating in the United States are as safe or safer than most traditional sports.
"There are 4.3 injuries per 1-million hours of participation compared to 2,650 injuries per 1-million hours in basketball," Swann said. "Those are pretty good odds."
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